When I first started dating my lovely wife Danusia, she asked me one day to accompany her to the Russian Baths on East 10th Street in the East Village for a unisex steam bathing session. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but she informed me that there were all-male days and all female days. She had passes and said it was her treat.
When I was a boy, eight or nine if I can recall correctly, my dad used to take me with him to the Turkish baths at the old Hotel Saint George on Henry Street in Brooklyn. I don’t recall these sojourns with particular fondness. I remember going into a hot steamy room full of fat wrinkly men with skinny legs sitting on long wood benches with towels around their necks, sweating, grunting, and occasionally talking to each other. It was hot as hell and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever voluntarily sit in such a hot wet smelly place.
Once, my father threw me into the pool outside of the steam room in an attempt to teach me how to swim. His whole lesson consisted of him standing on the edge of the pool and shouting: “swim, you little bastard, swim!” He had to dive in and fish me out. After I told my mother about this it never happened again.
My father was a strong swimmer; he had grown up in Tampico, Mexico, which is a port city with plenty of beach and water to learn to swim in. I grew up in housing projects in Brooklyn with no beach or ocean to swim in.
In the army, a buddy and I would go to the gym out of sheer boredom when we ran out of money to drink and party with. The gym was always packed the week before payday. We would lift weights; play racquetball and sometimes basketball. Once he said, “hey, let’s go in the sauna.” For me, a sauna is no different from a steam room; it’s hot and uncomfortable. But, being a good buddy, I did it a couple of times.
So when Danusia cheerfully told me about her special treat, I wasn’t exactly over joyed.
To me steam room, or saunas, or the beach; even, are hot, wet, uncomfortable places I’d rather not be. But this was my new girlfriend; I really liked her, and wanted to be with her as much as possible. So against my better judgment, I agreed.
“Are we gonna sit around naked with a bunch of strangers?” I asked.
“No, sweetie, bring your swim trunks, that’s all you need. They will give us towels and slippers.”
I took my trunks and I brought along a pair of flip-flops. There was no way I was going to wear something someone else had worn in a steam room. I had gotten athlete’s foot in the army and I am never going to go through that again.
We went, it was a bright sunny day and I wondered why we just couldn’t sit in the park instead of walking up the steps of this converted Lower East Side tenement that looked like it had seen better days in order to sweat profusely.
I’m puzzled by why people want to sweat, to be hot and wet. It’s like the beach, why would anyone in his or her right mind want to sit in the blazing hot sun on a big pile of even hotter gritty sand? And then go into salty water used as a communal bathroom by every kid and old person in the water, rife with bits of floating seaweed and other flotsam. But people love the beach.
People love their steam baths, judging by the crowd on this sunny weekday afternoon.
We went in, got our towels and locker keys, and went into the separate locker rooms to change.
The locker room was already damp and dingy; I could just feel the mold spores floating though the air looking for a host to settle on. The first thing I did was put on my flip-flops. There was no way my bare feet were going to touch any part of this floor. I took off my clothing and put on the trunks, and went out to meet Danusia.
“What now?” I asked.
“Let’s go the the Russian room.” She said.
I didn’t know it, but the Russian room was the hottest of the four different steam rooms there. We went in and sat on the wooden bench. I began to sweat immediately.
“How long to we have to sit here for?” I asked through clenched teeth. I was afraid if I opened my mouth too wide my lungs would sear.
“Let’s sit here as long as you can stand it.”
“That’s not very long.”
“Just try and enjoy it, love.” Believe me, I was trying very hard. It took a tremendous amount of effort to sit there and not bolt out the door into cooler air.
Eventually we got out and sat on a wooden bench near the pool.
“Do you want to go in the water?” It was a shallow pool with a built in tile bench.
“You mean just sit in the water?”
“Yes, sweetheart, let’s sit in the water and cool off, so we can try another sauna.”
Another one? I thought we were done. We went in the water, and it was cold. Not ice cold, but compared to the temperature of the communal room, cold. I shivered.
I sat in the water and looked around, there were other couples like us, and single men and women.
The couples were mostly younger Manhattan hipsters being cool. There were one or two middle-aged couples like us, and I could tell they were old-time East Village stalwarts. The single men and women were mostly older eastern Europeans, also neighborhood residents.
There were people lying on wooden tables being beaten with leafy green branches.
“What’s that all about?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s a Russian massage, they scrub you with oak leaf branches. It’s called ‘Platza.’ Do you want to try it?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Why would anyone want to be beaten with a branch? Then I noticed a guy, a big Russian guy who was walking around clutching one of these branches in one hand. He was wearing white pants and a white t-shirt, not trunks like the other men. He saw me looking at him and came over.
“You want?” He said holding up his bunch of oak-leaves.
“No thanks. Just curious, is all.” He went away.
I watched as he asked other people if they wanted. Eventually he made his way back to me. He stood over me as I sat on the bench next to Danusia, and he looked at her he put his free hand on my shoulder and started to dig his thumb into the skin right below my clavicle. It hurt, but I was determined not to wince or even change facial expression.
“You know, lady, real man take massage. Only chicken don’t take massage.” He shifted his gaze to me as he said “chicken.”
“But I am a chicken!” I exclaimed with the biggest smile I could manage.
“I’m a Rhode Island Red, can’t you tell?”
This caught the guy totally by surprise, and he frowned. I could see the confusion in his eyes; he didn’t know what to make of me. He let go of my shoulder and walked away. He didn’t ask again.
I wondered how many times we were going to have to go back in the sauna. I looked at Danusia and said, “You know, this must be true love! I hate being hot, I hate being wet and sweaty, and I hate the idea of strange fungi settling anywhere on my body or strangers trying to beat me with oak-leaf branches, but I’ve resisted the idea to run down the stairs and out into the fresh air just to be with you!” She laughed hysterically at this.
Last fall we went to California for vacation, and Danusia again suggested we go to a spa. It was called The Retreat and it was somewhere in Carmel.
The retreat was open-air; behind high wood fences were various pools accessible by tiled pathways lined with well-manicured foliage, and two saunas, a large wooden Turkish style room and a smaller Swedish dry sauna. We went into the Swedish sauna and sat down. I could hardly breathe. The sign on the wall suggested not staying in longer than ten minutes. Every couple of minutes there was a hissing sound. I didn’t know what it was, but I said to Danusia, “the next time I hear that sound I’m leaving.” She smiled at me. It seemed an interminable length of time before I heard the hissing sound again, but the second I heard it I jumped up and said, “OK, that’s it” as I ran out of the sauna into the cool fresh California air.